Blyth Festival hits the right notes with 'Mr. New Year's Eve' - July 6, 2017
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Artistic Director Gil Garratt has succeeded in hitting a celebratory note in the Blyth Festival’s return to Memorial Hall – now new and improved after $4.2 million of renovations both on and off the stage.
In many ways, Mr. New Year’s Eve: A Night with Guy Lombardo, is a perfect show to bring audiences back to Memorial Hall and show off the capabilities the renovation provides. The show is advanced in its technology, but steeped in history like so many Blyth Festival shows before it.
Garratt, who also directs the show, makes use of the new, state-of-the-art sound system, both for sound effects throughout the show and for the music of Lombardo and his band. The addition of Beth Kates as one of the first (if not, the first) to be credited as a digital dramaturge with her projection work – another advancement now in the hall’s tool belt – is another nod to the advancements made at the hall in recent months.
The show tells the story of Lombardo – a household name decades ago, but whose legacy has faded from public consciousness since his passing in the late 1970s. A London native, Lombardo and his band The Royal Canadians are believed to have sold as many as 300 million records worldwide. They toured North America extensively (and exhaustively), but would forever be linked to New Year’s Eve after playing that night’s biggest party at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City for nearly 20 years.
Even Lombardo, played by Ron Kennell, says it in the show: it’s easy to rattle off statistics and wow audiences with just how big the group became, but it’s difficult to wrap your head around just how popular the group of musicians was for its period in time.
The show, however, begins with an age-old struggle. Not about a band and the ultra-competitive music industry, or the fear of prohibition-era Chicago gangsters or Lombardo and his band fighting the rising tide of Dick Clark and rock and roll. Rather, the curtain rises and Lombardo is arguing with his father, played by George Meanwell, who also serves as the show’s music director.
Meanwell plays a man who was tough on his son Guy and continually tried to steer him towards a career as a tailor, following in his old man’s footsteps.
However, it was Lombardo’s father who first introduced Guy and his brothers to music, having them perform in dance halls along Lake Huron as children.
He also attempted to resist the wave of jazz taking over the world that would carve a path to a handsome living for his sons.
The play sets the tone early as Lombardo and his brothers spend the next two hours working to earn the respect and approval of their father. It proves to be a difficult task.
Mr. New Year’s Eve then embarks on a journey of expertly-performed musical numbers interspersed with vignettes of Lombardo’s life, many of them often bound to a time or place with which audience members can relate.
The story, crafted by David Scott who last wrote The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom for the Blyth Festival, then hits on major life moments for Lombardo and his group. Whether it was their decision to begin performing in the U.S., the stock market crash and the Great Depression or World War II, we’re alongside Lombardo all the way. We even get to see him fall in love with Lilliebell, played by Birgitte Solem, who also plays flute in the band and sings a number of tunes.
Speaking of the band, the music of Lombardo and his Royal Canadians is truly at the soul of this show. While audiences dip in and out of Lombardo’s story with powerful glimpses into the musician’s life, it is truly the music, all performed live on stage, that is the shining star of the show.
Festival regular and accomplished guitar player J.D. Nicholsen was asked to summon his high school-era drum skills for his role in the band and he plays well and looks at home at the kit. Similarly, Jason Chesworth, one of the province’s most accomplished guitarists, plays the six-string for Lombardo’s numbers, even dipping his toe into rock and roll when the occasion calls for it.
Klaus Anselm, Nathan Howe and James Thomson all prove themselves to be more-than-worthy musicians, bringing the audience to applaud after every solo and every song. The musicians complement Nicholsen on drums, Chesworth on guitar, Solem on flute and Meanwell on piano.
One of the true stars of the musical numbers is Rebecca Auerbach, who plays Sophie Tucker, who is also known as the last of the Red Hot Mamas. She is vivacious in the way women of the era were with a singing voice that could reach the east end of the village if only the Memorial Hall walls weren’t in its way.
As the band performs, Lombardo is always present, both conducting his musicians and playing to the audience. Kennell embodies the soul of the era and one could be forgiven if one forgot it was 2017 while sitting in Memorial Hall for a production of Mr. New Year’s Eve.
The show features music and does a good job of telling Lombardo’s story, but at its heart, Mr. New Year’s Eve is simply a fun night out at the theatre and it hit the celebratory notes Garratt and all involved with the Blyth Festival have been hoping for with this grand re-opening show.
Mr. New Year’s Eve: A Night with Guy Lombardo runs until Aug. 19.